Cancer Information

Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors Treatment (PDQ®)


General Information About Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

Ovarian germ cell tumor is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the germ (egg) cells of the ovary.

Germ cell tumors begin in the reproductive cells (egg or sperm) of the body. Ovarian germ cell tumors usually occur in teenage girls or young women and most often affect just one ovary.

The ovaries are a pair of organs in the female reproductive system. They are in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus (the hollow, pear-shaped organ where a fetus grows). Each ovary is about the size and shape of an almond. The ovaries make eggs and female hormones. Anatomy of the female reproductive system; drawing shows the uterus, myometrium (muscular outer layer of the uterus), endometrium (inner lining of the uterus), ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina.

Ovarian germ cell tumor is a general name that is used to describe several different types of cancer. The most common ovarian germ cell tumor is called dysgerminoma. See the following PDQ summaries for information about other types of ovarian tumors:

  • Ovarian Epithelial Cancer Treatment
  • Ovarian Low Malignant Potential Tumors Treatment

Possible signs of ovarian germ cell tumor are swelling of the abdomen or vaginal bleeding after menopause.

Ovarian germ cell tumors can be hard to diagnose (find) early. Often there are no symptoms in the early stages, but tumors may be found during regular gynecologic exams (checkups). Check with your doctor if you have either of the following symptoms:

  • Swollen abdomen without weight gain in other parts of the body.
  • Bleeding from the vagina after menopause (when you are no longer having menstrual periods).

Tests that examine the ovaries, pelvic area, blood, and ovarian tissue are used to detect (find) and diagnose ovarian germ cell tumor.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Pelvic exam: An exam of the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and the other hand is placed over the lower abdomen to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. A speculum is also inserted into the vagina and the doctor or nurse looks at the vagina and cervix for signs of disease. A Pap test or Pap smear of the cervix is usually done. The doctor or nurse also inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for lumps or abnormal areas.Pelvic exam; drawing shows a side view of the female reproductive anatomy during a pelvic exam. The uterus, left fallopian tube, left ovary, cervix, vagina, bladder, and rectum are shown. Two gloved fingers of one hand of the doctor or nurse are shown inserted into the vagina, while the other hand is shown pressing on the lower abdomen. The inset shows a woman covered by a drape on an exam table with her legs apart and her feet in stirrups.
  • Laparotomy: A surgical procedure in which an incision (cut) is made in the wall of the abdomen to check the inside of the abdomen for signs of disease. The size of the incision depends on the reason the laparotomy is being done. Sometimes organs are removed or tissue samples are taken and checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • Serum tumor marker test: A procedure in which a sample of blood is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs, tissues, or tumor cells in the body. Certain substances are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the blood. These are called tumor markers. An increased level of alpha fetoprotein (AFP) or human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) in the blood may be a sign of ovarian germ cell tumor.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery and treatment options).

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The type of cancer.
  • The size of the tumor.
  • The stage of cancer (whether it affects part of the ovary, involves the whole ovary, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • The way the cancer cells look under a microscope.
  • The patient’s general health.

Ovarian germ cell tumors are usually cured if found and treated early.

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Stages of Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

After ovarian germ cell tumor has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the ovary or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out whether cancer has spread within the ovary or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. Unless a doctor is sure the cancer has spread from the ovaries to other parts of the body, an operation called a laparotomy is done to see if the cancer has spread. The doctor must cut into the abdomen and carefully look at all the organs to see if they have cancer in them. The doctor will cut out small pieces of tissue so they can be checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. The doctor may also wash the abdominal cavity with fluid, which is also checked under a microscope to see if it has cancer cells in it. Usually the doctor will remove the cancer and other organs that have cancer in them during the laparotomy. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment.

Many of the tests used to diagnose ovarian germ cell tumor are also used for staging. The following tests and procedures may also be used for staging:

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Transvaginal ultrasound exam: A procedure used to examine the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and bladder. An ultrasound transducer (probe) is inserted into the vagina and used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The doctor can identify tumors by looking at the sonogram.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

The following stages are used for ovarian germ cell tumors:

Stage I

Three-panel drawing of stage IA, IB, and IC ovarian cancer; first panel shows a stage IA tumor inside one ovary. The second panel shows two stage IB tumors, one inside each ovary. The third panel shows two stage IC tumors, one inside each ovary, and one tumor has a ruptured capsule. An inset shows cancer cells floating in the peritoneal fluid surrounding abdominal organs. Also shown are the fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, and vagina.

In stage I, cancer is found in one or both ovaries. Stage I is divided into stage IA, stage IB, and stage IC.

Stage II

Three-panel drawing of stage IIA, IIB, and IIC ovarian cancer; first panel shows two stage IIA tumors, one inside each ovary, that have spread to the uterus and fallopian tube. The second panel shows two stage IIB tumors, one inside each ovary, that have spread to the uterus, fallopian tube,  and  colon. The third panel shows two stage IIC tumors, one inside each ovary, that have spread to the uterus and colon. An inset shows cancer cells floating in the peritoneal fluid surrounding abdominal organs. Also shown are the cervix and vagina.

In stage II, cancer is found in one or both ovaries and has spread into other areas of the pelvis. Stage II is divided into stage IIA, stage IIB, and stage IIC.

Tumor size compared to everyday objects; shows various measurements of a tumor compared to a pea, peanut, walnut, and lime

Stage III

In stage III, cancer is found in one or both ovaries and has spread outside the pelvis to other parts of the abdomen and/or nearby lymph nodes. Stage III is divided into stage IIIA, stage IIIB, and stage IIIC.

Cancer that has spread to the surface of the liver is also considered stage III ovarian cancer.

Stage IV

Stage IV ovarian cancer; drawing shows parts of the body where ovarian cancer may spread, including the liver, lung, lymph nodes, and bone. An inset shows a close-up of cancer spreading through the blood and lymph to other parts of the body.

In stage IV, cancer has spread beyond the abdomen to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or tissue inside the liver.

Cancer cells in the fluid around the lungs is also considered stage IV ovarian cancer.

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Recurrent Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

Recurrent ovarian germ cell tumor is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the other ovary or in other parts of the body.

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Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with ovarian germ cell tumors.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with ovarian germ cell tumor. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Four types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment of ovarian germ cell tumor. A doctor may take out the cancer using one of the following types of surgery.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the operation, some patients may be offered chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

After chemotherapy for an ovarian germ cell tumor, a second-look laparotomy may be done. This is similar to the laparotomy that is done to find out the stage of the cancer. Second-look laparotomy is a surgical procedure to find out if tumor cells are left after primary treatment. During this procedure, the doctor will take samples of lymph nodes and other tissues in the abdomen to see if any cancer is left. This procedure is not done for dysgerminomas.

Observation

Observation is closely watching a patient’s condition without giving any treatment unless symptoms appear or change.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

See Drugs Approved for Ovarian Cancer for more information.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

High-dose chemotherapy with bone marrow transplant

High-dose chemotherapy with bone marrow transplant is a method of giving very high doses of chemotherapy and replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body’s blood cells.

New treatment options

Combination chemotherapy (the use of more than one anticancer drug) is being tested in clinical trials.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

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Treatment Options By Stage

A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.

Stage I Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

Treatment depends on whether the tumor is a dysgerminoma or another type of ovarian germ cell tumor.

Treatment of dysgerminoma may include the following:

Treatment of other ovarian germ cell tumors may be either:

  • unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy followed by careful observation; or
  • unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, sometimes followed by combination chemotherapy.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I ovarian germ cell tumor. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage II Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

Treatment depends on whether the tumor is a dysgerminoma or another type of ovarian germ cell tumor.

Treatment of dysgerminoma may be either:

Treatment of other ovarian germ cell tumors may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage II ovarian germ cell tumor. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage III Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

Treatment depends on whether the tumor is a dysgerminoma or another type of ovarian germ cell tumor.

Treatment of dysgerminoma may include the following:

Treatment of other ovarian germ cell tumors may include the following:

  • Total abdominal hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, with removal of as much of the cancer in the pelvis and abdomen as possible. Chemotherapy will be given before and/or after surgery.
  • Unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy followed by chemotherapy.
  • Second-look laparotomy (surgery done after primary treatment to see if tumor cells remain).
  • A clinical trial of a new treatment.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III ovarian germ cell tumor. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage IV Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

Treatment depends on whether the tumor is a dysgerminoma or another type of ovarian germ cell tumor.

Treatment of dysgerminoma may include the following:

Treatment of other ovarian germ cell tumors may include the following:

  • Total abdominal hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, with removal of as much of the cancer in the pelvis and abdomen as possible. Chemotherapy will be given before and/or after surgery.
  • Unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy followed by chemotherapy.
  • Second-look laparotomy (surgery done after primary treatment to see if tumor cells remain).
  • A clinical trial of a new treatment.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IV ovarian germ cell tumor. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

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Treatment Options for Recurrent Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

Treatment depends on whether the tumor is a dysgerminoma or another type of ovarian germ cell tumor.

Treatment of dysgerminoma may be:

Treatment of other ovarian germ cell tumors may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent ovarian germ cell tumor. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

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Changes to This Summary (03/20/2013)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

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PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

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A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

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This information was last updated on 2013-03-20